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Will There Be Another 25 Years of Patriot League Football?

This year, the Patriot League is celebrating its 25th anniversary as a football conference.  Tomorrow, at Patriot League Media Day, this fact is expected to at least be mentioned, if not marked in a special way.

But there's a cloud over the 25th anniversary celebration.

While classic Patriot League players like RB Gordie Lockbaum and RB Kenny Gamble are honored, many folks are wondering if the league will make it another five years, let alone another 25.

That's because football-only member Fordham is well on their way to 63 football scholarships - and it seems increasingly likely that the Rams will be leaving the league at some point very soon. (more)

Football scholarships have been a hot topic for years, and during last year's Patriot League Media Day they were a powerful undercurrent to the proceedings.

Last December, the Patriot League was supposed to engage in an historic vote on whether to allow Patriot League football teams to offer football scholarships. This was no academic argument: Fordham had already announced their intention to offer football scholarships, in violation of league policy; this, in effect was supposed to be a vote on whether the league would follow Fordham's lead, or not.

Instead, however, the Patriot League didn't offer a vote to criticize or applaud.

"Following extensive discussions at their meetings this week, the Patriot League Council of Presidents elected to table a decision to adjust the current need-limited model of financial aid for two years pending additional deliberations related to the League's strategic direction," the Council of Presidents announced in a joint statement.

Perhaps seen as a grand compromise to buy time for certain league members to study the issue, in practice, it ended up, effectively, as a "no" vote. Fordham wasn't going to stop their pursuit of football scholarships to stay in the league, and other members of the league were not willing to commit on football scholarships.

And as a result, Fordham appears like they might be appearing in their final Patriot League Media Day tomorrow. Head coach Tom Masella will be there to field questions on his team, but since his schools' stance on football scholarships have made his Rams ineligible for the league title there will be no questions to him about Patriot League aspirations.

Assuming Fordham leaves for the Big South at the conclusion of this season - the most logical conference destination for the Rams - it will end Fordham's grand experiment with the Patriot League, first as an all-sports member, and then evolving into a somewhat uncomfortable football-only member. This fact doesn't get a lot of press, but it's undeniably sad - Fordham was the only other institution in America that was willing to embrace the stringent academic standards and need-based aid that the Patriot League was imposing on itself.

In the end what surprising is not so much that Fordham is leaving the Patriot League, but that they stuck it out for so long.

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Losing teams is never a good thing for a conference, even in the best of times. But the loss of Fordham and the inability of the league to offer football scholarships is even more damaging than some might think.

The league right now sits with six all-sports members. Five (Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lehigh and Lafayette) sponsor football, and one (American) does not, and will almost certainly not, sponsor football in the near future. Two institutions (Army and Navy) compete as FBS Independents in football and will never relinquish that real estate in order to play Patriot League ball.

Originally, the Patriot League modeled itself against the Ivy League in terms of freshman eligibility (no redshirting), scholarships ("none"), academic standards, and even on postseason play.

One by one, though, some principles have been eliminated or modified. Postseason play came first - the Patriot League got an autobid to the FCS playoffs in 1997. Then, athletic scholarships were introduced in every other sport, with football being the lone holdout.

As a result the Patriot League sits in a strange place: with more stringent academic standards than most FCS teams and operating without the ability to offer full scholarships to those that are academically qualified, but still competing in the same NCAA competitions.

At one time, Patriot League membership appeared to have one very crucial calling card: a pathway to play the deep-pocketed Ivy League on a regular basis. Back in the days when the Ivy League mostly was seeking insulation from the rest of FCS, this was a great thing. Every FCS team, and a whole lot of FBS teams too, for that matter, wants to play Harvard.

But these days, the Ivy League is a lot less insular in their scheduling that they used to be. Dartmouth is scheduling more Sacred Heart, less Colgate. Columbia is scheduling more Towson, less Lafayette. There are still some key matchups with Patriot League schools, but their number is diminishing.

There was always a risk in the Patriot League hitching its wagon to the Ivy League - that the Ivy League will decide to go in a direction that doesn't take the Patriot League into account in any way. And over the last decade, to me that seems like exactly what's been happening. Patriot League phones were silent when the League decided to abandon its "one Ivy" policy, and I'm sure the league office also wasn't consulted when Harvard and Yale decided to scholarship everyone making under $120,000 a year.

Why would another school be dying to join the Patriot League today?

Not because of the relationship to the Ivy League: for example, Columbia has more games against the NEC this year than the Patriot League - and the third game is against Fordham, who is one and a half steps out the door.

Not because they're "non-scholarship" - if they're truly trying to maintain a non-scholarship stance, they'll head to the Pioneer Football League, just as Marist did.

If you add everything together - the loosening of the Ivy relationship, the loss of Fordham, the fact that the league can't decide whether they want to offer scholarships or remain a sort-of "non-scholarship" league - it makes for a league with a lot of barriers to entry.

And that doesn't even include the mission statement for the league, which pointedly says that "our institutions do not exceed 6,500 [undergraduate] students". (Note: Fordham has 8,220 undergraduates.)

That eliminates almost all public institutions, and many successful private schools that are considered "mid-sized".

At times, it seems as if the League has a big sign on the front desk that says: "You need not apply for membership if you have aspirations of being: a) scholarship in football, b) non-scholarship in football, c) have more than 6,500 undergraduates, d) you are allergic to Ivy, e) are asking to be too dependent on Ivy, f) your "too public" for our liking", g) you're not "academic enough" for our liking, or h) we just don't like you enough."

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The football league is going to have to take down at least some of these criteria if they hope to survive another 25 years.

The truth is, if there is any hope of this league surviving, the football structure will have to change in some fundamental way in order to make it an attractive destination for an academically-minded school.

And the only realistic way to do this is to allow football scholarships to be offered, whether it be on a limited basis, or allowing the full allotment at the FCS level of 63.

If it doesn't happen, all that will be certain is that Fordham's departure will be the first step towards the death of the football league.

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